Where My Journey Begins….
I recently attended an event in London. The details about where the event was held were quite sketchy. Once I arrived at the event, I realised that this was because the event was internal and therefore probably didn’t need to be more specific. I arrived at the place where the event was held to be told that it was about a 10-minute bus drive away followed by a 15-minute walk. This did not faze me as my wheelchair is very fast and a 15-minute walk is more like 5 minutes.
So, I arrived at the bus station after being given directions by staff and boarded the bus. I promptly noticed that the button I needed to press to alert the driver that I needed the ramp was inaccessible to me – situated just out of my reach. So when the bus came to the stop, I called out to ask the driver to release the ramp.
Once on the pavement and the bus had driven off, I opened Maps on my phone to see where I was going next. Easy, it’s a straight line! However, when I looked around me, I noticed that I was on a high pavement. Looking to my left I could see there was no drop curb. Looking to my right I could see there was no drop curb.
Luckily for me, just at the moment as I was thinking “oh my gosh, what on earth am I going to do” (or words to that effect), a van pulls up in the car park next to me. 2 people got out and came over to see if I was ok. Asking for help to get off the curb, I explained where I was going. The man (George) told me the walk was riddled with pavements without drop curbs and to ensure I reached my destination; he would walk with me. Sure enough, by the time we’d reached the venue, George had helped me navigate (and by navigate, I mean lift my wheelchair) 5 curbs.
Upon arrival into the venue, I informed reception of the event I was attending and they informed me that I was given the wrong information and it was in another building. The incredibly generous George offered to take me back to where I needed to be.
As an employee, George had access to the staff shuttlebus that would take us straight to the doors of the venue. However, when the shuttlebus arrived, it was not accessible. They informed George that none of the staff shuttle services were accessible. We headed back to the main bus stop that would take us to where we needed to go. When the bus arrived, it had what I call a manual ramp which requires the driver to operate. I had to manoeuvre around an incredibly tight gap into a small, cramped space where I didn’t have room to move and therefore sat facing the wall.
Despite all this, we had arrived. George signed me into the building and escorted me to the room. To get to the room, we needed to use the lift. The lift was opposite a wall, meaning that I had to navigate a tight gap and turn on a difficult angle to enter and exit the lift. Upon entering the room, it was immediately obvious that I had managed to gate crash an internal event.
Why am I telling you all this?
Ironically, when George asked the question if I come across inaccessibility like this a lot, I honestly answered “no”. Yes, I definitely come across exclusion and inequality as a result of people’s perceptions and lack of understanding of disability but I don’t commonly come across inaccessibility to such an extent. If George wasn’t there, I would’ve literally been stuck at every point after I got off the bus. At the beginning of my ordeal, I thought that was a bit unusual. After the third barrier in a row, I decided that this had to be documented. As a disabled person, I am used to checking ahead of arrival that the venue is accessible. What I don’t do, is check the route to the venue for accessibility. These days I take that as a guarantee.
The support I received from George was amazing and without it, I would’ve given up probably when I arrived at the bus stop. Due to his understanding, empathy and persistence, the afternoon turned out to be incredibly productive and worthwhile. However, it shouldn’t have been down to George’s persistence to ensure I made it to my event. When I arrived at the venue (one hour late), I was slightly windswept, cold, tired and stressed but I had to immediately put all of that to one side to behave in the professional manner that I wanted my potential new contacts to remember me by.
I am not the first, nor will I be the last disabled person to experience these, or comparative barriers and then to have to immediately put them to one side and adapt to the environment. Nor am I suggesting that non-disabled people haven’t experienced similar cases where they’ve had to swallow what they are feeling to present in certain way. However, the barriers that I refer to are unacceptable and surprising.
I don’t often purely talk about the physical barriers presented to disabled people but in this case, the front facing services of this business clearly show that they are making an effort to be inclusive and accessible for disabled people. However behind-the-scenes, this doesn’t seem to always be the case for their employees. Whether this is deliberate or not (and I very much doubt it is deliberate) the message it sends to any disabled employees who currently or are looking to work for this business is negative. We talk about unconscious bias but what about unconscious influencing? When developing a culture of inclusion, to non-disabled employees, it could contradict any messages of creating inclusive environments.
When thinking about your inclusive culture, it is so important to think about every area of inclusion. Not just the attitude of your staff, not just the opportunities for disabled employees to achieve but also your physical landscape. In your business, there will be things that you can change relatively easily but there will also be things within your external environment that are seemingly out of your control. When planning your inclusive strategy, don’t forget to think about these things and how, if that environment does not belong to you, you can influence councils and the community to make meaningful change.
Esi (pronounced SE) set up Celebrating Disability in 2017; offering training, consulting and auditing to support businesses attract, engage and retain disabled people. Having the opportunity to support businesses to see the wealth of benefits that disabled people can bring to business, either as customers or employees is a privilege. She is passionate about disability equality and inclusion and loves nothing more than that “Ah ha” moment with a client when they see what disability equality and inclusion can do for them.
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